Campaigning in Total War: Rome II With Al Bickham

As part of our visit to Rome, in order to preview Total War: Rome II, we were given the opportunity to speak to some of the top guys from The Creative Assembly, and ask all the really pressing questions we could come up with.

First up was Al Bickham, who introduced the game at the start of the day, and holds the delightfully confusing job title of Studio Communications Manager. While I knew exactly where to point my questioning when talking to Jamie Ferguson, Lead Battle Designer, in an interview which will go live later today, Al’s description had me a little off guard.

So the most pressing question I had was:

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TSA: What exactly do you do? You have quite a strange job title.

Al Bickham: I do have a strange job title, and it bothers me as much as it bothers anyone else! So, Studio Communications Manager, er… so I basically have, erm…

We’re not like any other studio, in a number of ways, but in the way I mean it’s that we have our PR, marketing and all that jazz in studio, working with the developers. We work with [Sega’s PR team], but a lot of strategy that we go with comes from us.

So literally, we’re sitting side by side with the developers, and we go, “When are these sorts of things going to happen?” or, “Can we talk about this?” and they’ll say yes or no. So I’m sort of one of the bridges between those two teams.

TSA: But I believe you have a role in game design as well as communications?

AB: Yeah, I have input with design on things like – not in the prologue here – but with demos and things like that. People ask me, “What do you think people would like to see at the show?” and I’m like, “A massive battle!” [laughs]

TSA: [laughs] Elephants!

AB: Yeah, elephants charging down a hill and knocking guys over left, right and centre! And they’re just, “Cool, we can make that.”

That is game content as well, so it all ends up in the game, which is beautiful. We don’t do crazy show builds, which nobody gets to play. So one of our key things is that if we’re showing it off, it’s got to be in the game.

You know, from the start of a project to the end, iteration will happen, changes will happen, and things will look a bit different. The lighting model may change, or maps may be altered to make it more playable, but it’s all game content. So I work on that and just generating screenshots and trailers and things like that.

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Al Bickham’s in charge of things like this screenshot.

TSA: You’ll have to forgive the fairly overarching questions, because I wasn’t quite sure where to aim at, with your job title! So, because Total War is such a huge game, how do you try keep things accessible, and attract new people to the series?

AB: Well, the prologue is actually a good topic for that, because this is our lead into the way Total War works. I think there’s definitely a conception of complexity, and this is really designed to demystify that and say, “Well, here’s what you do: you build armies, you increase your buildings, you research technology, and then you go out and do some war!” So, at its heart, it’s not a complex concept.

I think it comes from the scale, which I think is something which puts people in that frame of mind. Especially with Rome II, because it’s a big game. Quite importantly, through a campaign game of Rome II, you may not end up conquering the world. You could probably play a campaign within just one quarter of the whole campaign map, and we’ve got multiple types of victory conditions as well.

TSA: Yes, I was going to ask about what you’ve done for the end game, which could often turn into a bit of a siege-fest. What have you done towards trying to alleviate that?

AB: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s somewhat solved by the province system, where not every city out there is going to be a monster city to siege. If you’re going for a nation’s capital, like Rome, Carthage or Alexandria, you can be assured it’s going to be a big siege battle, and there will be a big battle to play, but throughout the course of the game there will be a lot more battle types. Open field battles, and navies involved in land battles now, with disembarking and shelling the land, and stuff like that.

So we’ve just got a greater variety of battle types, and it’s not just one single type of slog. I think that’s easier to do with the variety of content in Rome II.

Shogun II was a monoculture game, it was about a single culture which had a very simple roster of units, so I think there’s going to be a lot more variety in the new game.

TSA: You also have different victory conditions this time?

AB: You do, yeah.

You can win by meeting certain economic requirements and win an economic victory, or you can aim to culture flip other cultures to join you, and win a cultural victory by doing that across the map.

You’ll still have some war, because it’s Total War, but you can play more towards those objectives and less towards a standard military victory.

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There’s still a lot of warring, but you can win in several new ways.

TSA: Do you guys just spend a lot of time in the library at the start of development?

AB: Yeah, basically… actually, we spend a lot of money on Amazon! [laughs]

TSA: [laughs] You’re keeping them in business!

AB: You know, there are books out there, and no-one can get hold of them, and it’s like “Oh! A reprint has come in!” One click. Buy.

So yeah, pre-production is a lot about that, but it has to continue all the way throughout. People have reference books piled up on their desks, and they’re just constantly being referred to. You plan to make stuff for the game, and some of it doesn’t get made until later on, so you have to constantly keep referring back, to make sure you get your facts right.

TSA: How deep does this authenticity run into the game? Where do you draw the line?

AB: Well, we have a simple rule, and that is if history fights with gameplay, then gameplay wins, because it’s a game.

What we don’t want is a dry, dusty history lesson. We want a game that brings all the thrills of history to life. So, you know, authenticity is the word, not accuracy, because we aim to conjure up an atmosphere of the time, and we reflect the events and we…

At this point, it’s actually time for lunch, and we’re sat at a table in the corner of where people will very soon be eating. Waiters are shuffling around, putting large bottles of water onto tables, and there’s a thunk on the recording, as one is placed very close to my phone which is recording. It’s very hot in Rome.

You’ll understand in a moment why I’m setting this scene, as Al momentarily turns to the waiter.

AB: Thank you. That’s a good thing. I’m really thirsty…

Um… and we also… you know, we aim for accuracy for things like armour and weapons, formations and things like that, but the point is that when the player starts playing the game, the whole thing becomes counter-factual, because it’s a sandbox game.

TSA: You’re creating your own history.

AB: Exactly. You’re carving out your empire to build a certain way across the map, and bringing you into contact with certain other factions, which probably didn’t happen in history. So it does become counter-factual, but historical authenticity is what we aim for.

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As soon as you take control of an empire, it’s your actions which can rewrite history.

TSA: I did have a good question before bottles of water arrived, which had just popped into my head, but it’s vanished now! So we’ll go to my final topic: What changes have you made to the diplomacy systems? I hear they’re more statistical?

AB: Yeah, so the faction AI reasons more deeply about world events around them, effectively. It doesn’t just look at and base its relationship with you purely on your actions, it will base it in part on the relations with your allies, as well.

So, that whole “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing, that’s more of a thing in Rome II than it has been before. The AI will look at how you’re treating with the rest of the world and draws opinions from that.

You might be allied with an AI, but you’re going and doing lots of things it doesn’t like. OK, so its impression of you is dropping off, but if you then make friends with its enemy or attack its other friends, then that’s going to have serious implications as well. It just looks further down the line to draw its conclusions on how it’s going to deal with you.

We have a new Relations Panel, which you just hover over it when you’re looking at factions you can do diplomacy with. There’s a mask with a green smiley face, or a yellow straight face, or a red angry face, and when you hover over tha it pops up the relations meter, which is a list of all the actions by which it’s judging you. It’s just a list of things that you’ve done, good and bad, in the past. So, “Committed war atrocities against Macedon” +5!

They don’t like Macedon, so they like what you’ve done there. You’ve gone in, you’ve conquered a city and taken the population as slaves to bolster your own economy. So it reasons about all that stuff, and now you can make a good judgement on whether your diplomacy is going to work with them.

In previous Total War games, you might have gone again and again and wondered why you can’t win this guy over, and now you can see. So I think that’s a really good development for us and Total War.

TSA: Excellent, thank you!

Thanks to Al for taking the time to talk to us during his hectic day of granting interviews. Come back later on for our interview with Jamie Ferguson, Lead Battle Designer, if you want to know about shark infested waters, but in the mean time, there’s always that preview to read.

The coverage of Total War: Rome II in this preview and the interviews which follow, was made possible for us and dozens of other journalists from across Europe by SEGA taking us to Rome. Thankfully, this included water, given how Rome was quite oppressively hot.

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3 Comments

  1. Really looking forward to this Total War: Rome was one of my favourites.

  2. The new diplomacy and relations stuff sounds great, I just hope it’s easy to manage and keep an eye on things considering how much larger the map is now.

    • When reaching near the end-game of Empire Total War it would take me about a couple of hours per turn to manage my lands, and that’s not including battle time. So considering this one is even bigger god knows how long it will take to complete each turn when you reach late game!

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